Friday, April 21, 2017

Augustus Pugin: Architect of the Victorian Gothic

By Mark Patton.

The skylines of Britain's great cities, London, Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Cardiff, are dominated by two great architectural styles, which compete with one another for the attention of the visitor: the "Gothic," and the "Classical." Whilst some really significant buildings (Westminster Abbey, York Minster, the Cathedrals of Salisbury, Winchester, Ely and Durham prominent among them) are genuinely Gothic (i.e. Medieval), none are genuinely Classical (i.e. Roman - this is in contrast, say, to France, where significant Roman buildings are still standing). Most of the prominent buildings in British cities are more accurately described as "Neo-Gothic" or "Neo-Classical," and were built in the Seventeenth, Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries.

The skyline of Edinburg in c 1895. Photo: Library of Congress (image is in the Public Domain).


Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (1812-1852) was one of the leading architects of Victorian Neo-Gothic. He was not the first British architect of the modern era to look to the Medieval past for inspiration, but he took the attachment to the Gothic world view to a new level, and, in doing so, created some of Britain's most iconic buildings.

Augustus Pugin, c 1840. Image: National Portrait Gallery (Public Domain).


Pugin's father, A.C. Pugin, himself an architectural illustrator, came to England as a refugee from the French Revolution. As a boy, Augustus traveled through Germany and the Netherlands with his father, helping to survey and sketch the great Gothic churches and cathedrals of the continent. By the age of fifteen, he himself was designing Gothic furniture for Windsor Castle.

"Specimens of Gothic Architecture," by A.C. Pugin (image is in the Public Domain).


Pugin's great break came in 1834, when a fire destroyed the greater part of the Palace of Westminster. A committee was established to commission a replacement, and the contract went to Pugin's collaborator, the architect, Charles Barry. The committee had specified that the new building should be either in the Gothic or the Elizabethan style: the capital already had its share of Neo-Classical buildings - Somerset House, St Paul's Cathedral, the Greenwich Hospital, the British Museum, still under construction - and the style had been discredited by association with the nation's defeated enemy, Napoleon Bonaparte. Britain was not a secular republic, it was argued, but a Christian kingdom, and this identity should be reflected in the nation's most prominent public building. Pugin argued, successfully, for a Neo-Gothic building, not least because one of the few surviving elements of the original Medieval building was Westminster Hall, built during the reign of Richard II.

The Medieval Westminster Hall, as depicted by Pugin's father (image is in the Public Domain).


Arguments have subsequently raged over which man was responsible for which elements of the building, but it seems likely that, whilst Barry designed the floor-plan and managed the budget, Pugin took responsibility for much of the detail, including the design of what is now referred to officially as the Elizabeth Tower (but, popularly, as "Big Ben" - actually the name of the bell), and almost all the features of the interior.

The Palace of Westminster, as designed by Barry & Pugin. Photo: Alvesgaspar (licensed under GNU).
The thrones in the House of Lords, as designed by Pugin. Photo: US Government (image is in the Public Domain).


For Pugin, however, the choice of Gothic was not simply an aesthetic, but also a moral, even a religious one. In 1836, he converted to Roman Catholicism, and, in the same year, he published a tract called Contrasts, arguing that the Gothic was the authentic Christian style, which embodied the principles of true religion. Classicism, on the other hand, he saw as rationalistic, atheistic, and ultimately utilitarian, going hand in glove with the tendency to treat human beings merely as means to an end. His tract came with a series of provocative illustrations.

"Contrasted Towns," by Augustus Pugin, showing the supposed contrast between a civilised Medieval town and a dehumanised modern one (image is in the Public Domain). The Medieval image, however, is highly sanitised, with no evidence (for example) for capital punishment or poverty.
"Contrasted Residences for the Poor," by Augustus Pugin (image is in the Public Domain). In fact, the "modern" design at the top (a modified, but not a true, "pan-opticon"), though widely used for Victorian prisons, was never used for workhouses; and the corpses of workhouse inmates, though they may have been buried in mass-graves, were never supplied to anatomists.   


As a refugee, Pugin's father had adopted the Anglican faith to avoid the prejudices that might have prevented him from finding work. During the reign of Queen Victoria, however, Britain became more tolerant of other religious traditions, including Catholicism and Judaism. The Catholic Church re-established a hierarchy of bishops, and new Catholic churches sprang up around the country, largely in response to the influx of Catholic, Irish labourers. Pugin was well-placed to be the architect of preference to the new dioceses, although he sometimes came into conflict with the bishops, both over budgets (like many architects, he didn't like working within them), and over his ultra-traditional views on church architecture.

The Roman Catholic Church of St Giles, Cheadle, Staffordshire, designed by Pugin. Photo: Oosoom (licensed under GNU).


Pugin did not only design public buildings and churches, however, but also private houses, schools and colleges.

Scarisbrick Hall, Lancashire, designed by Pugin as a private home, now a school. Photo: PC78 (licensed under CCA).


His later years were troubled by apparent mental health difficulties: syphilis and hyperthyroidism have been suggested as possible causes of these, but he had also suffered tragedy in his personal life (his first two wives died young), and he seems to have responded to this by immersing himself in his work, so perhaps exhaustion was also a factor. He would have died in the Bethlehem Hospital had his third wife, Jane, not engineered his release, against medical advice. He died at home in Ramsgate shortly afterwards, at the age of just forty, and is buried nearby, in St Augustine's Church, which he designed himself.

Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.

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